Veterans recall days of uncertainty as Gulf War began
By LISA KACZKE | Duluth News Tribune | Published: January 17, 2016
DULUTH, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — When Dave Boe was assigned to serve with the U.S. Army in Germany in 1990, he thought he had avoided being sent to the Middle East, where tensions were building with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
“I signed in, saying, ‘Hey, I’m here, here’s my orders.’ They’re like, great, you’re just in time. We’re all going to the Middle East,” he said.
Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of the bombing campaign that was part of Operation Desert Storm. The aerial assault was followed by a ground war at the end of February.
A lot of memories of the Gulf War have surfaced for Boe recently due to the pending anniversary, along with the start of his job as program manager at Veterans Memorial Hall in Duluth.
He served in an aviation support unit and his role was to supply fuel to the jets. He thought he wouldn’t go into the heart of the war, but they asked for volunteers to go with a unit closer to the action and he didn’t want to stick to the “dog and pony show” at headquarters.
When Boe entered the military in 1983, he thought he would be fighting the Russians in Germany. Instead, he spent his 20 years in the military in places like the Middle East, Bosnia and Panama.
Before the start of the Gulf War, he heard the fear about chemical warfare and casualty predictions of 10,000 people a week. The fear of death was always in the back of his mind, he said. He added, “We didn’t know. We were just grunts.”
He was serving in Kuwait after the war ended and he went on a mission where they ran into black marketeers. They were asked to run some items across the border and declined, but did get a bottle of Canadian whiskey.
“We sat there in this (vehicle) cab and we talked about what we had gone through. We shared this bottle of Canadian whiskey and thinking thank God we’re alive,” Boe said. “We felt alive because we were alive.”
He appreciates that his job now entails preserving the stories of veterans and wants other Gulf War veterans to participate in telling their stories, although some veterans don’t want to talk about it, he said. There weren’t many casualties during the Gulf War and people don’t often remember it, but veterans have been affected since the Gulf War by post-traumatic stress syndrome, suicides and Gulf War syndrome.
His service in a Middle East war zone strained his marriage and he received a “Dear John” letter from his wife during the Gulf War.
When he arrived home at his base in Germany after the war, families were gathered to greet the soldiers, but he didn’t have anyone there. He walked back to the barracks alone in the dark, knowing his marriage was over and wondering what to do with his future, but feeling peaceful.
“I don’t regret my 20 years. I don’t regret my time in the Gulf. That’s what you sign up for,” he said.
Col. Bradley Graff, who recently retired from Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, was a second lieutenant on a scheduled deployment to England when he was sent to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates in July 1990. He had recently graduated from the Air Force Academy and was on his first deployment.
“I remember asking my aircraft commander, ‘Are all deployments like this?’ It turned into a huge war, which wasn’t normal,” the Duluth native said.
His mother, Sophie Graff, worried in Duluth and wondered where he was in the Middle East.
“If a relative really wants to drive themselves crazy, just watch CNN news all day. But you just can’t help it,” she told the News Tribune in 1990.
It was a different time of communication, Bradley Graff explained.
“I was gone for a long time. Our location was classified. Back then, we didn’t have all the Internet, cellphone stuff. We just didn’t have that kind of access,” he said.
He was in Abu Dhabi at the time of the invasion. He spent four months flying missions during Desert Shield. He then came home for a short time before deploying to Turkey for Desert Storm.
He said he didn’t know what to expect when he landed in the Middle East. They were given tents before arriving, but then spent the first three weeks staying at a nice hotel. After the August invasion, a lot of refugees began coming to the hotel who knew the airmen were staying there.
“I’d be walking through the lobby and people would approach me and ask, what are the Americans going to do about this?” he said.
After he came home, his friends and family had a lot of questions. It was the first major military action in years and the Cold War had just ended, so people were curious, he said, adding, “It’s hard to keep it in context now.”
Dennis Hughes was one of five Vietnam War veterans to head to the Middle East in 1991 with the Duluth-based 477th Medical Company, a U.S. Army Reserve ambulance unit.
He had headed to Vietnam as a medic when he was 19 years old and then found himself, at 40, leaving his own 15-year-old and 19-year-old daughters to oversee 19-year-old medics during the Gulf War as one of the 477th’s three officers.
“When you come up from Canal Park and turn left to get to the freeway — I still to this day get a tear every once in awhile, I can still see Amy waving to me, my 15-year-old,” he said.
The unit headed to Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy in November 1990, where they trained for the desert in the snow amid the daily question of whether the reservists would be heading to the Middle East to care and transport wounded soldiers.
“We’d sit in our mess hall where we ate and watch TV just like everyone else would every day. Are we going? Are we not going? It was very emotional,” he said.
The 477th landed in Saudi Arabia on Jan. 11. With more than a decade since the end of the Vietnam War, many of the troops arriving had never been in combat.
“There was someone with a megaphone, honest to God, on a bicycle, riding around the dock saying, ‘Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen, you’re combat veterans.’ It was bizarre,” he said.
Hughes arrived with 107 people in the 477th Medical Company. The unit had three siblings, a father and a son, a mother and a daughter, and a husband and a wife, he said.
However, their unit grew to 258 people due to the fear of high casualty numbers from chemicals.
“They talked about 10,000 a week. … They were so fearful of the chemical weapons,” he said.
The 477th is one of several Minnesota units that has since been notified that it may have been exposed to low levels of chemical agents for a brief time during the Gulf War.
The only injuries in the unit occurred in a crash in which a trailer broke off and hit one of their ambulances, throwing one medic out of the ambulance and pinning another, he said.
There were times in the Middle East when he felt like he was a parent waiting for his children to come at night, especially toward the end of their time there when they were experiencing more boredom than anything else, he said.
At the end of May 1991, the 477th arrived at Fort McCoy to take buses back to Duluth, where they were greeted by residents lining the highway.
“There were people on the highway as far back as Rice Lake on Highway 53. Superior was just packed. Then they had us down at Bayfront. It was overwhelming. It was unbelievable,” he said. “There were people out on the highway, with the flags and cheering. It was really something.”
Hughes was a medic in the back of the ambulance that picked up an injured John Marshall.
When Hughes asked Marshall where he was from, Marshall responded that Hughes had probably never heard of his hometown of Duluth, Minn.
Marshall was serving with the 41st Infantry Regiment, deployed from a base in Germany on Jan. 6, 1990, and returning at the end of May.
“We had 4,000 men. Out of the 4,000, the initial projected losses in the first 24 hours were supposed to be 75 percent — 3,000 — either killed or wounded. Thank God they didn’t turn out that way,” Marshall said.
He was in three battles during the Gulf War. He could justify killing when it was fighting an enemy army, but toward the end, he said he “felt absolutely terrible” about fighting Iraqi civilians and an ill-equipped military.
During the Feb. 27 Battle of Norfolk, he was injured by friendly fire and his driver was killed, whose daughter was born two days later.
“It was terrible. I wish it had been me because I was only 12, 15 feet from where he got killed,” he said.
After Marshall was wounded, an Iraqi came to him crying with the Quran. Marshall said, “I’m going, why are we here? Bullets are flying, s—-’s blowing up, it’s just chaos everywhere. Dante’s Inferno couldn’t even describe the hell that’s going on. … He offered me a cigarette and I’m smoking it. It was ironic,” he said.
Six months after he returned from the Gulf War, he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. Since the end of the Gulf War, he’s been diagnosed with 30 medical conditions. He’s also a part of the federal government’s study on cancer and exposure to depleted uranium, which was in the sabot rounds that wounded him.
In hindsight, Marshall feels bad that they didn’t do enough during the Gulf War to avoid the Iraq War in 2003, but he’s proud of his service during the Gulf War.
“I have no regrets. I would do it again. I love this country. I served this country with great men. I take great pride that we were able to do so much in such a short period of time,” he said.
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